The Meaning of Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher died on the morning of April 8 and tributes to her have poured in from ruling class politicians the world over.‘We have lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton.’ said David Cameron. ‘The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend’, said Barack Obama.
For Tony Blair she was ‘a towering political figure’ and for Peter Robinson, ‘She was undoubtedly one of the greatest political figures of post-war Britain and she changed the face of our United Kingdom forever’. ‘She was great - great as a woman, great as an MP, great as the first woman PM, great as a winner of the war,’ was Ian Paisley’s response.
George Bush hailed her as ‘an inspirational leader who stood on principle and guided her nation with confidence and clarity’, and Angela Merkel said: ‘She was one of the greatest leaders in world politics of her time. The freedom of the individual was at the centre of her beliefs’.
‘Ronnie and Margaret were political soul mates, committed to freedom and resolved to end Communism,’ said Nancy Reagan. Nato Secretary General Anders Rasmussen called ‘an extraordinary politician who was a staunch defender of freedom, a powerful advocate of Nato and the transatlantic bond’.
Even those establishment politicians whose history or current political base rules out enthusiastic endorsement are very respectful e.g. Enda Kenny, (‘a formidable political leader who had a significant impact on British, European and world politics’) and Ed Miliband, (‘She will be remembered as a unique figure…we can disagree and also greatly respect her political achievements and her personal strength’.)
In stark contrast we have David Hopper, general secretary of the Durham Miners' Association. ‘The death of Margaret Thatcher was a "great day" for coal miners…It looks like one of the best birthdays I have ever had’.
And it is clear that David Hopper here was speaking not only for miners, who had a particular reason to hate Thatcher, but for millions of working people in Britain and across the world. In Brixton revelers took the streets on Monday night (the night of Thatcher’s death) as they did in Glasgow and there will have been innumerable pints drunk in her ‘honour’ from Sheffield to Swansea and Derby to Derry. Indeed there was also a party that night in the Cobblestone pub at Smithfield in Dublin.
This extremely polarized reaction mirrors very precisely the class division in British society and the division between oppressors and the oppressed everywhere. To understand it we have only to look at what Thatcher actually did. From first to last she was a warrior – a warrior for her class and for free market capitalism.
When Thatcher first served as a minister in the Heath Tory Government of 1970-74 she became known as ‘Maggie Thatcher –Milk Snatcher’ for ending the supply of free milk to children in schools. When she defeated Ted Heath for the Tory leadership in 1975 it signified the Tory Party’s and the ruling class’s punishment of Heath for his defeat at the hands of the miners (and other trade unionists) in 1972 and 1974. she was elected to reverse and revenge those defeats.
In the run up to the General Election of 1979 she deliberately played the racist card saying, ‘People are really afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people of a different culture.’ It was no coincidence that the police operation, involving large scale harassment, which sparked the Brixton riot of 1981, was called Operation Swamp.
Similarly she condemned Nelson Mandela as a terrorist while backing South African Apartheid. This was a time when Young Conservatives, great fans of Thatcher, were permitted to wear badges saying ‘Hang Mandela’.
Intellectually Thatcher was heavily influenced by the right wing free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, followers of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman – the gurus of monetarism and neo-liberalism. She was committed to the view that the main, almost the only, economic evil was inflation which had to be curbed by strict control of the money supply (including cuts in public spending) regardless of the consequences for employment or industry.
When Thatcher became PM in 1979 she immediately presided over a deep recession and mass unemployment, which rose rapidly to levels not seen since the 1930s. It was not Thatcher who caused the recession; that was the contradictions of capitalism (the recession was international) but her harsh policies did absolutely nothing to mitigate its devastating effects on working class people, on the contrary they made it worse. This was when she famously proclaimed, ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning’.
It was in these first years of her rule that much of the destruction of British industry occurred and that she earned the undying hatred of large swathes of the British working class, especially in areas such as South Wales and the North where the recession hit hardest.
The same stone hearted indifference to human suffering which was Thatcher’s reaction to mass unemployment was brought to bear on the Irish Republican hunger strikers in 1981. The attempt to criminalize Republican prisoners of war had been begun by the Labour Government in 1976, but Thatcher pursued it with a vengeance. Even after Bobby Sands was elected MP in the middle of his strike Thatcher persisted in the manifestly absurd claim that he was merely a common criminal. ‘We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime, it is not political’, she told the House of Commons. And when Bobby Sands died she showed no regret saying, ‘Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims’.
Thatcher’s haughty denunciation of crime and the ‘men of violence’ as she liked to call Republicans, did not, of course, extend to criminals and men of violence on her side of the political spectrum. Among those she befriended were General Pinochet, the military dictator of Chile, responsible for the murder of 30,000 Chileans and the torture of many more.
Thanks largely to the recession, Thatcher was extremely unpopular in 1981 but two things saved her political bacon. The first, and probably most important, was the revival of the British economy in 1982-3, and the second was victory in the Falklands/Malvinas War.
The Falklands War of 1982 was classic imperialist war mongering involving the ruthless sacrifice of young lives for political gain. Small islands, 7000 miles away off the coast of Argentina, with a tiny population (the main occupants were sheep), the Falklands/Malvinas’ status as British was a hang over from the days when Britain was a global imperial power. The brutal Argentinean junta occupied the islands as a jingoist distraction from their deep problems at home, in the mistaken belief that Britain would not respond. Thatcher saw her chance and dispatched a task force to the South Atlantic.
Just when there was a real possibility of a negotiated peace Thatcher scuppered it by ordering the torpedoing of the Argentine cruiser, the General Belgrano, with the loss of 323 lives, while it was outside the military exclusion zone sailing away from the conflict. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun (Murdoch was one of Thatcher’s closest allies) greeted the event with the infamous bloodthirsty headline ‘GOTCHA’.
Victory in the South Atlantic at the cost of 649 Argentinean and 258 British young men with over 2,500 wounded, led to Thatcher’s second term and the implementation of her carefully planned assault on the trade unions, ‘the enemy within’ as she called them. The ground for this had been prepared by the trade unions’ Social Contract deal with the previous Labour Government, which undermined union organization at the base (much as social partnership did in Ireland). Thatcher then moved on to the offensive with a series of anti-union laws outlawing solidarity (so-called secondary action and secondary picketing), restricting pickets to six and impose compulsory secret ballots for industrial action- laws subsequently maintained by Labour – and a series of set piece confrontations culminating in the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.
This strike was forced on the miners by Thatcher’s imposition of a drastic programme of pit closures. The government was well prepared with large coal stock piles and deployed the full force of the state against the miners. The police were awarded big pay increases into ensure their loyalty and as the strike wore on were given to waving their pay packets in the faces of impoverished miners, before brutalizing them in confrontations such as Orgreave and Mansfield.
Nevertheless the miners fought with such determination and courage and attracted so much support from working people across the country and round the world that they came within an inch of winning. In the end it was lack of solidarity from the TUC leadership which sealed their fate (as it did the fate of the Dublin Lockout in 1913).
The crushing of the miners was followed by the breaking of another key bastion of trade union organization, the Fleet St. print unions. This was carried out in conjunction with her pal, Rupert Murdoch, who closed his Fleet St operation, sacked all his workers and opened up with scab labour in Wapping. Again there was fierce resistance but again the full force of the police was used to smash it.
Thatcher’s other ‘achievements’ of these years included the mass sell off council houses which permanently undermined the provision of council housing in Britain and the systematic privatization of state assets – gas, electricity, water, steel and so on.
These triumphs over the unions and ‘socialism’ as she called it, for which the Tory Party and the British ruling class remain deeply grateful, were accompanied at the opposite end of the social spectrum by an economic boom spearheaded by the City of London. This saw the emergence of new social types: ‘City Boys’ with big bonuses and Porsche cars and YUPPIES (young upwardly mobile professionals). This was a time when capitalism was celebrated, conspicuous consumption was ‘in’ and we were told that ‘greed is good’. There was a parallel phenomenon with Wall St. in Reagan’s America.
However, the boom of the mid-eighties did not resolve the underlying problems of British or international capitalism and on Black Monday, October 19, 1987 the Stock Market crashed internationally including the City of London. The Tories, like the Republicans, abandoned the economic dogmas and, led by the US Federal Reserve, threw vast sums of money at the system to avoid a recession. This worked but only for a short period. Recession returned in 1989.
Before Black Monday Thatcher had gained a third election victory in 1987 but, convinced of her own invincibility, she overreached herself with the Poll Tax. This introduced a single flat-rate per-capita tax on every adult, at a rate set by the local authority. It was therefore hugely unfair with an unemployed person paying the same as the Duke of Westminster and correspondingly unpopular. It was implemented first in Scotland, as a ‘trial’ for a year, and then across Britain (but not in Northern Ireland – for fear of the response there).
The result, first in Scotland, then in Britain as a whole, was a mass campaign of non- payment, resulting in the jailing of a number of activists such as Tommy Sheridan, complemented by a series of mass demonstrations culminating in a monster demonstration of 200,000 in London on 31 March 1990 which turned, when attacked by the police, into a huge riot in Trafalgar Square and the surrounding streets.
This broke both the poll tax and Thatcher. In his diaries Tory Minister and Thatcher fan, Alan Clarke records that in the Commons that night Tory MPs were ‘talking openly of ditching the Lady to save their skins’. By November she was gone, brought down by her own backbenchers and cabinet colleagues, indeed ‘to save their skins’.
Today Thatcher’s apologists advance two main claims on her behalf: that she was a champion of freedom and played a major role in bringing down Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and that she was a ‘feminist icon’ by virtue of being the first woman prime minister of Britain. No one should be fooled by these claims.
The fall of the Stalinist dictatorships owed nothing to Thatcher. It was the product of their own internal contradictions and economic failure combined with the struggles of their own people such as the Polish workers in Solidarnosc and the East German masses who dismantled the Berlin Wall brick by brick. Thatcher was not a freedom fighter but a reactionary Cold Warrior and war monger who encouraged George Bush snr to launch the first Gulf War for oil in August 1990 and no doubt was bitterly disappointed not to be there for the bombing of Baghdad and the horrible ‘turkey shoot’ of retreating Iraqi troups on the road to Basra. The only freedom she championed was the freedom of capitalist markets to trample on working class people.
As for being a feminist icon, the opposite in the case. She was open about her contempt for feminism and no more advanced women’s rights than did Catherine the Great of Russia or Marie Antoinette. Quite apart from what she did to the lives of working class women, she was not even keen to promote other Tory women to her cabinet.
More than enough has now been said to understand why Thatcher’s death is mourned by the rich and the right but by celebrated by working people and socialists. A final point remains to be made. It was her ‘achievement’ to contribute significantly to shifting British and international politics to the right and to pioneering the neo-liberal consensus from which the poor, the disadvantaged and the ordinary people of the world have suffered so much and continue to suffer. Thatcherism is alive and well in the policies of the Cameron government in the UK and the austerity measures of the FG/Labour government here.
For this reason the best way to mark Thatcher’s demise is not only to celebrate but also to continue to develop working class resistance to Thatcherite policies and the capitalist system that breeds them.
9 April 2013.